The Risk of Playing it Safe


When I struggle with a line it’s usually because I’m trying to play it too safe. In this photo it’s obvious that I’m struggling with my angle. That’s because I used too much right angle attempting to avoid the hole and rock at the bottom. Had I relaxed and kept my boat angle a little more downstream I would not be struggling physically and mentally.

I witness this in myself and also in my kayak students. In our attempt to avoid an obstacle or intimidating feature we end up in a more dangerous place. We also often end up in the hole or on the rock that we’re attempting to avoid! As my friend, Clay Wright recently wrote: “Trying and failing to miss a hole sets up the worst possible angle for hitting it…” Sometimes playing it safe is the riskiest thing we do on the river.

The same can be said for paddle surfing in the ocean. Attempting to catch a wave too soon or too late can lead to more of a trashing than feeling uncomfortable sitting in the sweet spot. Worse, when we play it too safe we never catch any waves at all!

So what are some strategies for finding the courage to not play it too safe? Here are my top three:


Separate Fact from Fiction

In other words, distinguish between the story you’re telling yourself about the consequences of missing the move and the actual consequences of missing the move. Sometimes we build rapids up in our minds, especially when we’ve heard scary stories from others. Or, we focus on the obstacle instead of the line. I often tell my students to remember that rapids are made up of different river features and just because that particular feature configuration has a name like Broken Nose or Frankenstein doesn’t mean that you should be afraid.

In order to separate fact from fiction it’s important to have a tool for calming the mind. It’s easy to mistake fiction for fact when we’re wrapped up in our nervousness. Slow, steady breathing in and out through the nose is one of the most effective calming strategies I know. So, the next time you start buying into your own drama around a rapid, move or surfing, take a pause and turn to your breath. It’ll give you a whole new perspective!

Trust Yourself

When we don’t trust ourselves we play it safe. Paddling is an individual sport and the only one responsible for your performance is you. This aspect of paddling challenges us to elevate our self-trust to new heights. When I play it too safe it’s because I don’t trust myself to perform the necessary skills in a particular environment. Everyone experiences moments of self-doubt so it’s important to not make ourselves wrong about it – it’s a journey.

‘Do I trust myself?’ When I ask this question of myself above a rapid or in the line-up I find that I perform more effectively. Obviously the answer is yes – if it is no then I walk the rapid or go find a friendlier wave to surf. The question stokes my courage and confidence. Sometimes I still mess up even when I don’t ask, and that’s O.K. The key is to continue asking ourselves the question over and over so that we continue to flex our self-confidence muscles.

It also helps us to practice good discernment and decision making. There’s nothing wrong with acknowledging that we don’t trust ourselves on that particular day or in that particular moment. Self-knowledge leads to good decision making. We’re all experiencing different levels of confidence, skills and experience, and acknowledging that is also part of building self-trust. You know best for you.

Paddle with People Who have Earned Your Trust

I’m stealing this from Brene Brown – I’ve been reading her books lately. She talks about only confiding in people who have earned the right to hear your vulnerability. I love applying this to kayaking as well. If you want to take risks then paddle with people who have earned the right to hear, acknowledge and be with your vulnerability. In other words, paddle with people who you know and have experienced can be with you just as you are.

They are the ones who have empathy for your nervousness and struggles. Those who stand beside you and have your back when you decide to step it up, while at the same time not judging if things don’t go to plan. They honor your unique journey while also honoring theirs.

When we surround ourselves with people who have earned the right to be with our vulnerability we experience a freedom to step outside of our safety zone.


For techniques on calming the mind for better discernment between fact and fiction, read chapter 4 of my book Yoga for Paddling: The Breath and Stress Reduction. You can purchase a signed copy HERE! 

Be sure to check out our Creek Weeks if you’re a whitewater kayaker and want to step out of your safety zone with people who support your journey!

If you want to learn strategies on resilience and self-care check out our Art of Self Care Retreat!